Bury: Why Norman Tebbit loves the Norman Tower

Lord Norman Tebbit is pictured at his home in Bury talking with Liz Nice.

Lord Norman Tebbit is pictured at his home in Bury talking with Liz Nice. - Credit: Archant

Lord Tebbit and his wife, Lady Margaret, moved to Bury St Edmunds five years ago from West Sussex, although they had no family or friends here nor any connection with the town. Liz Nice wonders if she knows the true reason...

Lord Norman Tebbit is pictured at his home in Bury talking with Liz Nice.

Lord Norman Tebbit is pictured at his home in Bury talking with Liz Nice. - Credit: Archant

Ever since I learned that Lord Tebbit had moved to my home town of Bury St Edmunds, it has always rather amused me that he lives near one of our biggest local landmarks: the Norman Tower.

As I walk down to his house, I wonder if I will dare to ask him if having his own ‘Norman’ Tower was part of the reason for the move. He doesn’t strike me as someone who will find this amusing, however. I think of him as a Tory firebrand, with lots of strident opinions I tend not to share. When I ring his doorbell, I brace myself.

I am early and he doesn’t come to the door. At exactly 11am, the time we had agreed upon, his door opens. A stickler, I think to myself. My grandfather, also ex-RAF like Lord Tebbit, was exactly the same.

“I’ve allocated you an hour,” Lord Tebbit says. I don’t expect to get a minute more. Don’t call him Norman, I remind myself. Remember that he is a lord!

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I am led down a very wide stone hallway into what Lord Tebbit calls, somewhat wryly, “my library”. Along with the books, there are RAF pictures and political cartoons, a beautiful portrait of Lord Tebbit and his wife, Lady Margaret, and lots of family photographs. In pride of place is a photo of an aged-looking golden Lab.

“That’s Ben,” Lord Tebbit says.

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I imagine that Ben must have been with us until recently but apparently he has been gone for several years. Lord Tebbit has written a book inspired by him called Ben’s Story, about a young boy who is paralysed in a car crash that kills his father. The boy has a specially trained dog, also called Ben, from the real life organisation Canine Partners, which trains help dogs. With the help of a “sweet, white haired old lady who isn’t what she seems”, Ben and the boy discover that the car crash wasn’t an accident after all and set out to put things right. The “sweet old lady” is based on an old friend of Lord Tebbit’s, “another sweet white haired lady”, Daphne Park, “who also happened to run MI6”.

Was the real life Ben a help dog for Lady Margaret? I ask.

Lord Tebbit shakes his head. “Actually, he was just an ordinary gun dog,” but he then relates the tale of when he was taken into hospital with pneumonia, leaving Ben in charge of the household.

“Margaret had developed bronchitis. Ben realised she was ill, so he declined to sleep in his usual place on the landing – instead, he came to look after Margaret. When I came home from hospital, he gave me a look: where the hell were you when she needed you?

“Everyone who loves dogs knows that they know what you are thinking,” he adds, “and sometimes you know what they are thinking too.”

I hadn’t expected to come to Lord Tebbit’s house and talk about dogs but, as our meeting goes on, a number of other things occur which I had not been expecting either. As we both speak glowingly of the West Suffolk Hospital, “Margaret and I have always found them extremely good”, I discover that we share a political hero in the founding father of the NHS, Nye Bevan.

“He was a real politician,” Lord Tebbit says. “He said what he believed and had experience of life outside politics. He stood up to Churchill too, when he was pushing his luck!”

I don’t flatter myself that Lord Tebbit has read any of my columns in support of the NHS but I wouldn’t put it past him either. Nonetheless, we seem to agree on a lot of other things too – and not just on how much we love our dogs.

We agree on coalition: “If I had my way, we wouldn’t have gone into coalition with the Lib Dems!” he says, believing that either Labour or “Mr Cameron” should have formed a minority Government and then gone back to the country and made them decide. The current situation is, he says, very difficult for the civil servants in Government departments.

“It makes it hard for them to work when they are being told different things by different masters. In my day, there was never any doubt about what the policy was.” No arguments there.

“It’s hard for politicians these days to say what they really think, isn’t it?” I ask.

Lord Tebbit gives me what can only be described as a look. “Well, I don’t!” he says. Again, I can’t help but agree.

Then something else unexpected happens. Lady Margaret joins us. Earlier, when I had asked how she was, Lord Tebbit had seemed hesitant. “It will be 30 years this October (since the Brighton bombing) and I’m afraid… she’s not that well.” However, she steers her way in through the door and although it takes a while, and Lord Tebbit explains that “this is one of the narrower doorways”, she replies firmly “but I can do it” and she does.

“I was just wondering where you were, dear,” she says.

Carefully not mentioning the Norman Tower, I ask what inspired them to move to Bury St Edmunds. It turns out that a traffic jam was to blame. They were on the A11 after a visit to friends in Norfolk, and “You know how it is near Elveden,” Lord Tebbit sighs.

“We were getting quite despondent so I said ‘Let’s cut down through Bury St Edmunds’.” He had stayed in Bury before, at the Angel Hotel, “on some political engagement” and they had been looking to move from their village in West Sussex because “It had become clear to me that my wife was not going to be able to get out any more on her own as we lived too far out” so they wanted to live in a town, with everything on the doorstep.

“I saw Bury with new eyes and I said to Margaret, ‘This wouldn’t be a bad bet!’”

The house “needed a lot of work” and had to be converted for Lady Margaret’s chair, but the wide hallway I noticed when I arrived was part of its attraction. As is Bury itself: “It’s an extremely nice town!” Lord Tebbit says enthusiastically. “I don’t think we should tell too many people, do you? It’s still got the old medieval grid at the heart of it and with the Abbey Gardens and the cathedral it’s got a lot going for it. It’s not a commuter town so people actually live here, they don’t just sleep here, so there’s much more of a town life. There are bigger houses and smaller houses all higgledy piggledy so there’s a good mix of people which makes it a real place.”

Before Lady Margaret joined us, Lord Tebbit told me that her favourite story about Bury was that when the house was being renovated, she had gone into Hatter Street to get a sandwich, only to discover as she was about to pay that she had left her purse behind. She started to tell them that she would have to go and get it when “a lady said ‘let me lend you some money’ and she lent her a tenner!” He smiles, incredulously. “It’s just a jolly nice town!”

People stop them everywhere they go, they say. “A man on the market stall called out to me the other day, ‘Happy Birthday, Norman!’ People have always made us feel so welcome here.”

They go to the Theatre Royal, “though it has been a little more difficult lately”, and they worship at the cathedral when the mood takes them, although Lord Tebbit is not a regular churchgoer. He says the Church of England suits him. “I was talking to Archbishop Sentamu and he called me a stalwart Christian. I said ‘not so fast’. I’m more of a fellow traveller on the Christian bus. People on buses stay on as long as they are confident that it’s going in the right direction!” He smiles. “I suspect a lot of people have their fingers crossed!”

I realise pretty quickly that Lord Tebbit hasn’t the slightest concern about offending people with his views. My grandfather, also of Lord Tebbit’s political persuasion, was exactly the same. As we talk on, I realise how much I have missed the heated debates we used to have, being occasionally appalled at his views, yet loving to hear them all the same.

When we reminisce about Lord Tebbit’s RAF days, this comes through more than ever.

“Didn’t you have to bail out of a plane once?” I ask.

Lord Tebbit waves his hand. “Well, you could say I had an argument with a plane once. I survived. The plane did not!”

He talks about learning to navigate by the stars and I tell him that my grandfather has the RAF motto on his gravestone.

“What’s that?” Lady Margaret asks.

“Per ardua ad astra,” he answers. Then he adds thoughtfully, “Through struggle to the stars.”

There is a slight pause.

“That’s lovely,” Lady Margaret says.

Later, when I ask a clumsy question about the bombing and how it affected them, she patiently explains: “You just have to accept what happens and if you have someone who loves you and you love him, I think that’s the important thing.”

Their relationship touches me. When Lord Tebbit goes off to get a Bible story adapted by their friend Jeffrey Archer to show me – yet another unexpected moment – Lady Margaret whispers, “He works too hard! He is 84, you know”.

I realise I have been there an hour and a half now and it is only because Lady Margaret mentions lunch that Lord Tebbit agrees it is time to stop. By now I have been calling him Norman for some time. He does not seem to mind in the least.

As I leave, he is still showing me RAF artefacts and the most beautiful wall carving that mirrors the Battle of Britain memorial.

He explains that it was given to him as a thank you for his work campaigning to have the memorial put on the Embankment in London. “This will amuse you,” he says and I swallow slightly.

Whenever he was showing me something he was proud of, my grandfather always used to say that.

Finally, as I leave, I pluck up the courage to ask my Norman Tower question. By now I am thinking, if he doesn’t have a sense of humour, I shall be really disappointed.

“It has always amused me that you live near the Norman Tower,” I say and a huge smile comes over Norman Tebbit’s face.

“My tower?” he says, laughing. “Yes, it’s very nice to have a tower named after you, isn’t it?!”

Ben’s Story comes out on May 1 and is available at all good bookshops

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